Skills Toolkit

A former top skills civil servant has criticised the launch of a government-funded campaign to promote free online education content at a time when the third national lockdown shuts the doors to adult education providers.

‘An Hour to Skill’ was launched on Thursday and aims to “inspire people to set aside just one hour a week for online learning” by taking a free online course through the ‘Skills Toolkit’.

The toolkit is a “platform” which offers more than 70 “high-quality” courses, according to officials, and was created by the Department for Education in April 2019 to help teach out-of-work people new skills during the first lockdown.

It consists of a web page on the National Careers Service with short course descriptions and links to the external websites for organisations such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google and the Open University. A previous FE Week investigation found that many of the courses are simply short video tutorials or PDF documents that people can stop and start, with no tuition and no external quality assurance from the likes of Ofqual and Ofsted.

The new campaign will involve the “one-hour” message being promoted through businesses’ channels as well as social media, and “demonstrates that making the time for online learning can feel simple and achievable, overcoming some of the key psychological barriers faced by the people we need to reach”. The DfE is also partnering with well-known psychologist Honey Langcaster-James to elevate the message.

The campaign has been set up as the government urges the public to “stay at home” during the national lockdown, which is due to run until at least mid-February and includes the closure of FE providers to all but vulnerable students and the children of key workers.

Sue Pember, a former director of FE funding in the DfE who is now the policy director of adult education network HOLEX, said the move was “disappointing”.

Sue Pember

“I really can’t believe how insensitive this is,” she told FE Week. “Adult education providers and colleges were told to shut by the DfE and then the DfE starts and pays for a national advertising campaign for a set of commercial competitor providers.”

She added that the providers “are all private sector and I am not clear why they are giving them a business advantage over the providers they fund. Where is the national advertising for their provision?”

Pember also questioned the DfE’s claim that the courses on the Skills Toolkit are “high quality, as not one of them has been inspected by Ofsted”.

In response to Pember’s criticism, a spokesperson for the DfE said: “The campaign is backed by all the providers on The Skills Toolkit, including FutureLearn, Institute of Coding, University of Leeds and The Open University, to offer a range of high quality courses.

“The competition was open to all providers and those who applied were subject to a competitive and rigorous quality assurance process in order to have their courses featured on the platform.

“An Hour to Skill is designed to signpost people to these courses to help them develop their skills and to change attitudes to lifelong learning that will benefit all providers.”

In a statement accompanying the campaign’s launch, skills minister Gillian Keegan said the courses can “help boost the nation’s skills and job prospects at such an important time for our economy” and that she is “confident that learning through the Skills Toolkit can give you the skills employers are looking for”.

This follows an FE Week investigation last month in which the government was urged to withdraw claims about the take-up of courses on the toolkit.

This publication found that significant over-counting had already led to revised estimates, and that “course start” and “registration” claims in official statistics will continue to include web hits.

The DfE claims there have been more than 130,000 “registrations” for courses on the platform to date but admits these are “experimental statistics and rely on website analytics submitted by providers”.

More than £1 million had been spent to develop and promote the Skills Toolkit at the time of FE Week’s investigation. The DfE did not say how much extra funding is going towards the ‘An Hour to Skill’ campaign at the time of going to press.